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Anshu Malik overcomes pain, Tokyo disappointment with historic World Championships run

File photo: Anshu Malik in action during the 2020 Asian Wrestling Championships Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Anshu Malik made history in Oslo on Wednesday - her comprehensive 11-0 technical superiority victory over Solomiia Vynnyk of Ukraine making her the first Indian woman wrestler to make the finals of the World Championships. She's wearing that mantle lightly though. At least that's the impression you'd get if you were privy to the 20-year-old's post victory call with her father Dharamvir Malik. The chat was a very brief one. "After I congratulated her, she said she had to get back to training. She has the final to wrestle in as well so she had to cut weight once again. She's very focused. She's not thinking about making the final. She wants to win a gold," he says.

Anshu has been a wrestler on a mission after a difficult past few months for her. In April, she became one of the youngest Indians to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in April, capping a remarkable run at the senior level over a year and a half - where she would win Asian gold and a silver at the Individual World Cup in Belgrade in 2020. But just when she had hoped to break out, things had not gone her way. Her build-up to the Olympics was marred by an outbreak of COVID-19 in her family. Even as her father struggled with a bad bout, Anshu had to train out of a hotel room. She had given her best at the Olympics but lost to eventual finalist Iryna Kurachkina and then Valeria Koblova in the repechage.

"She was very upset after the Olympics. She had hoped to return with a medal and she came back empty-handed," says her father. After a few days as she came to terms with the defeat, she decided on a new challenge. "She said even if I couldn't win a medal at the Olympics, I'm going to win one at the World championships," he says.

But there would be further challenges in store for her. She had aggravated a long-standing niggle in her left elbow at the Olympics. "It would just lock by itself," Anshu would explain. Despite the potential risk, she decided to compete in the trials to select the Indian team for the World Championships. In the final bout of the competition, that elbow tweaked painfully once again and what was once an irritation developed into a tear.

"The doctors advised her to sit out of the World Championships. But she was determined she would go," says her father. For all her resolve, it was impossible to use her elbow. "For two weeks we only trained her legs. It's only the last week before the World Championships that we trained her upper body," says her coach Jagdish Sheoran.

Despite the pain she was under, Anshu says she never considered skipping the World Championships. "It was very difficult. Just after the Olympics, I didn't have the performance I wanted. I picked up an injury in my elbow. The one month I prepared for the Worlds, only I can say how I trained. But I just wanted to fulfill what I had missed out on at the Olympics," she told reporters in Oslo following her semifinal. In Oslo, she says the pain was forgotten. "I wrestled every match as if I was wrestling for the last time. The elbow isn't all right but once on the mat you don't even think about it," she says.

It is true that the World Championships featured a depleted field, with only Olympic bronze medallists Helen Maroulis of the USA and Evelina Nikolova returning from Tokyo to compete in Oslo. Anshu also got a favourable draw with both Maroulis and Nikolova as well as Japan's 2019 Junior World Champion Sae Nanjo on the opposite side of the draw. But Anshu did what she needed to do. She came through a tricky opening bout against current junior world champion Nilufar Raimova with a 15-5 victory by technical superiority, then beat 2020 Asian silver medallist Davaachimeg Erkhembayar 5-1 before rolling over 2021 European junior champion Solomiia Vynnyk in the semis.

Although she's already created history, Anshu says she wants to go one step further. She'll have to get past USA's Helen Maroulis though. Although Maroulis won a bronze in Tokyo, she's a gold medallist from Rio and is a two-time world champion. The Indian though is going into the contest without any fear. "I'm feeling really good. Whatever mistakes I had made at the Olympics, I'm getting a chance to correct them here. I just wanted to give my 100 percent. I've given my 100 percent in all my matches. I wrestled each match as if it was my last. I will fight the final as if I am wrestling my final match also," she says.